Friday, March 9, 2012

The Lunch that Changed my Life

The title of this post might have been misleading, because you're probably expecting me to tell you about some phenomenal food I ate, but that's actually not the case (although I definitely will be telling you about some phenomenal food, that's just not the reason this lunch changed my life).

I feel incredibly lucky that my job allows me the opportunity to do a lot of traveling around the country and to connect with so many amazing people.  For those of you who don’t know, I manage the social media and blogger relationships for two Whirlpool appliance brands, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air. Through my job, I have been traveling to amazing places, as I mentioned, and recently had the chance to visit Miami for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, Los Angeles for the Design Bloggers Conference and Costa Mesa, CA for a custom blogger event all in one long trip.

As a member of the food blogging community myself, connecting with other bloggers is one of my favorite parts of my job. What could be better than meeting other passionate foodies and getting to call it “work?” I do feel very lucky that it’s part of my job description.

About a year ago, I went to the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Austin, TX. While I was there, I attended a session hosted by the White on Rice Couple, Todd Porter and Diane Cu, a married photography and blogging couple from California. I instantly fell in love with their style, their work ethic and their adoration of food, travel, photography, life and, above all, each other.

When I started my job last July, I noticed their names on the list of bloggers that my predecessor left for me to work with. From the first time I spoke to Diane on the phone, I was smitten. She was sweet, lively and full of wonderful ideas for how we could work together. I was thrilled when she told me that she and Todd were coming to NYC for meetings and they wanted to get together for coffee.

Our coffee date ended up lasting almost 3 hours, during which the three of us talked about our mutual love of dogs, taking pictures of food and, of course, KitchenAid. Diane was excited to share an idea she had for me about a custom blogger event that they could host at their studio in California. As luck would have it, I was going to be traveling to LA for the Design Bloggers Conference in February, so the idea for the KitchenAid lunch was hatched.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. After months of intense planning that included many phone calls, emails and texts, the KitchenAid lunch was finally taking shape. I wish I could take credit for this fabulous event, but it was really Diane & Todd’s hard work and dedication that made this whole thing come together. I like to say that all I had to do was show up!

They invited some friends of theirs to demonstrate KitchenAid appliances including Joy the Baker, Cristina Ferrare and Cristina’s daughter, Alex Thomopoulos who blogs at Against the Grain. They also invited about 45 bloggers to attend the event. The night before, Diane came and picked me up in Los Angeles and drove me to her home in Costa Mesa. Yes, Diane and Todd were kind enough to invite me to stay in their lovely home. I was greeted at the door by their amazing dog Sierra who I instantly fell in love with and dropped down to the ground to cuddle with (I mean it, I LOVE dogs).

(Sierra the Wonder Dog)

Diane spent most of the night cutting out name tags and finishing planning for what we had dubbed the KitchenAid Lunch.

We woke up the next morning to arrive early to the studio for last-minute preparations. I was thrilled to meet Cristina who was warm, welcoming and absolutely stunning.

(Cristina & me)

Her daughter Alex had me laughing from the moment I met her. A beautiful girl with bright eyes and a huge smile, Alex looked just like her mother and had all her best qualities.

(Cristina & Alex)

Finally, I couldn't wait to meet Joy the Baker. She's one cool chick who I knew to be a total badass in the kitchen from reading her blog. In person, she’s down-to-earth, sweet as pie (no pun intended)  and a total blast to hang out with.

(Me & Joy - photo credit: Anson Cu)

As the bloggers began to arrive, I almost had nervous butterflies. I hoped that the event would be a success, that everyone would have a good time and that it would show just how darn much I adore meeting and working with bloggers. As I mentioned in a post last year, I was absolutely blown away by the food blogging community and they way it reacted to the passing of Jennifer Perillo (of In Jennie’s Kitchen)’s husband, Mikey. The community came together, offered support and love, baked Peanut Butter Pies per Jennie’s wish and showed true compassion. A lot of money was raised to help Jennie rebuild her life after her husband’s untimely passing, and the story absolutely touched my heart. It was Diane and Todd’s video tribute that really got me (I mist up just thinking about it), and if you have a tissue nearby, you should definitely watch it. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of, and was exactly why I couldn’t wait to meet these incredible bloggers.

From the moment the KitchenAid lunch started, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I introduced myself to everyone and every person there was beyond nice.


Fresh-squeezed orange juice made from the KitchenAid Stand Mixer Juicer attachment was mixed with sparkling wine to make fabulous mimosas for everyone.

(Thank you Jen!)

After we got to chat for awhile, we all took our seats for Diane & Todd’s presentation about telling stories through photography, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (including mine, obviously) as they shared stories about their work, their love, their dog Dante who they lost recently and their amazing “Life Recipe” video.

(Everyone watching the presentation - photo credit: Anson Cu)

The message that resonated the most from their presentation was that when you do what you love and embrace the natural imperfections that happen in life, great things result. For Diane & Todd, their greatness shows in their incredible photos and videos that they share with their friends and fans. Their greatness also shows in their overwhelming kindness. Can you tell I absolutely adore these two, or what?

Over the course of the afternoon stories were shared, friends were made and we got to witness some fabulous recipe demonstrations. Cristina whipped up some Potato Cakes in the 13-Cup Food Processor that she then baked and covered with smoked salmon and crème fraiche. This dish was absolutely amazing.

(Cristina - photo credit: Anson Cu)

(Cristina's Potato Cakes)

After Cristina, Alex stepped up and sliced up Cucumbers and Zucchini to make a fresh carpaccio out of the vegetables.

(Alex - photo credit: Anson Cu)

(Zucchini & Cucumber Carpaccio)

She had everyone laughing with her sharp humor and drooling over her delicious food. This girl is someone I’d love to be friends with, and I'm so excited for her to come visit New York. Diane, Todd and I watched some of Alex’s stand-up comedy later that night and I was laughing so hard, juice almost came out of my nose. More on that later.

We were all then treated to an outstanding lunch prepared by Diane and Todd. Vietnamese Chicken Salad (phenomenal), Red Rice with Beans (delicious) and Veggie Chili (so yummy) were served alongside luscious cheeses, hearty charcuterie, delicious crackers and homemade pickled vegetables. I barely had room on my plate for all that goodness, and I was blown away by how fresh everything was. Diane and Todd are truly masters in the kitchen.

(My plate)

After lunch, Joy was up, whipping up Marshmellow Meringue frosting in the KitchenAid 7-qt Stand Mixer.

(Joy - photo credit: Anson Cu)

Diane then announced that we would all be decorating the 300 cupcakes they had baked the day before, and the room buzzed with excitement. The frosting was a huge hit, even with me, an official dessert hater. I snuck in a bite of a mini chocolate cupcake with Joy’s awesome chocolate buttercream frosting. Don’t tell the dessert police!

For the rest of the afternoon, we decorated cupcakes, chatted, laughed and took lots of photos. The event felt like a gathering of old friends even though many of us in the room had never met each other. It felt easy, natural and was just so much fun! As the afternoon began to wind down, we decided it would be a great time to give away the KitchenAid appliances that were generously donated. Everyone was SO excited about the possibility of winning a Stand Mixer, Food Processor or Convection Countertop Oven. Those that did win were beyond thrilled, and it was so great to be able to bring such huge smiles to their faces.

These are my favorite photos from the event, Todd, Joy, Cristina, Diane, me and Alex laughing because we felt famous with all the camera flashing at us:

(Photo credit: Anson Cu)

I also want to take a minute to thank all of the phenomenal bloggers who attended the event. You were all so great to meet and I'm looking forward to future opportunities for us to work together and enjoy more great events. We couldn't have done this without all of you!

(Bloggers during lunch)

(Bloggers during Cristina's demo - photo credit: Anson Cu)

(Bloggers trying Cristina's Potato Cakes - photo credit: Anson Cu)

After everyone had left and the studio had been cleaned, Diane, Todd and I set out on another adventure: walking on the beach and dinner! Our first stop after we went home to pick up Sierra was Newport beach where we walked, talked, took some pictures of the beautiful California sunset and played Frisbee with Sierra.

(Newport Beach)

We did our best to work up an appetite for dinner, Diane and Todd knew how badly I wanted to have an In-N-Out Cheeseburger while I was in California, so off we went. I was so excited for my burger that when our number was called, I squealed. How embarrassing! All 3 of us had a Cheeseburger and we shared 1 order of Animal Style Fries. For those of you who don’t know what Animal Style is, it’s not listed on the regular In-N-Out menu, but those in the know love the melted cheese, sautéed onions and Thousand Island-style dressing that make the famous Animal Style topping. I’m on the fence about it, I do love the cheese and the onions but I’ve never been that into sauce or dressing so I could take it or leave it. On fries though, I have to say, it’s pretty dang delicious.

(3 Cheeseburgers at In-N-Out)

(Animal Style Fries at In-N-Out)


We hopped in the car and drove back to Todd & Diane’s where I was served two of the most incredible cocktails I have ever had. A margarita made with fresh lime juice (the limes had been picked from their back yard) was the best margarita I’ve ever had. I usually don’t like them because they can be sugary and heavy, but this was fresh, light and went down a little too easy.

Lately, anytime Patrick orders a whiskey cocktail and I take a sip, I find that I don’t hate it. Actually, I have kind of been enjoying it. Todd made me an Old Fashioned with fresh tangierine juice (again, he picked them from their back yard) and Tangierine bitters that he made himself. Seriously, is there anything these two CAN’T DO?! I loved the drink and finished every last drop. While I was drinking it was when we watched Alex's comedy and juice almost came out of my nose. Yes, almost. Then Diane and Todd said that they were going to take me for the best pizza ever. Pizza? After In-N-Out? Surely they were absolutely insane. And let me tell you, that’s my kind of crazy!

We climbed into the car again to head to Pizzeria Mozza where we got 3 seats at the pizza bar. This gave us the prefect view of the pizza oven as we watched our second dinner being made. We ordered (of course) three individual pizzas so that I could try a bunch of different kinds. Todd ordered the Potato, Bacon and Egg pizza, Diane ordered the Fennel Sausage pizza and I requested the Funghi pizza with Fontina cheese. The restaurant was warm and smelled like heaven, and when the pizzas were placed in front of us, I almost drooled. First, the Fennel Sausage Pizza.

(Fennel Sausage Pizza at Mozza)

I LOVE sausage, and this was delicious, but what really blew me away was the crust. It managed to be light and airy but also chewy and substantial at the same time. It was like no crust I had ever tasted before, and I instantly understood why they insisted upon taking me to Mozza. I wasn’t crazy about the red onion or scallions on the pizza, but the crust and sausage were amazing.

Next up, the mushroom pizza. Wow. This was so good. So so good. The mushrooms were the tastiest I’d ever had and paired with that amazing crust, THIS was a pizza! My mouth is watering thinking about it now…

(Funghi Pizza at Mozza)

I did also try Todd’s Potato pizza and yes, it was very good, but just not my preference. It tasted like a yummy breakfast dish, not a pizza.

(Potato, Bacon & Egg Pizza at Mozza before the yolk is broken)

(Potato, Bacon & Egg Pizza at Mozza after the yolk is broken)

I thought about that  mushroom pizza the whole ride home and the second we got home, I climbed into bed and was asleep instantly. It was the most decadent but incredible dinner I’d had in a long time.

The next morning, even though I was still full from our meal the night before, Diane and Todd drove me to Little Saigon for a Vietnamese Banh Mi breakfast. I feel like I’m gaining weight just by re-writing this! We made a few stops once we got there from a fruit market to try Jack Fruit (a huge, sweet fruit with an enormous seed) and other colorful delights.

(Diane in the Fruit Market)

Then to Van’s Bakery for Chicken Pate Chaud (flaky, buttery, tastes like a chicken pot pie) and fried mochi.

(Chicken Pate Chaud from Van's Bakery)

(Mochi from Van's Bakery)

Finally, we went to Banh Mi & Che Cali for Banh Mi Sandwiches, the breakfast of champions! Diane got a Lemongrass Beef sandwich and a traditional Pork sandwich. What really surprised me was the price of the sandwiches. They were each under $3! I don’t think we’re in New York City anymore, Toto. As I was taking a huge bite of the sandwich and had sauce dripping down my face, I received the best compliment Todd ever could have given me, “Rachel, you’re a really good eater!” he said. I have arrived.

(Lemongrass Beef Banh Mi from Banh Me & Che Cali)

(Pork Banh Mi from Banh Mi & Che Cali)

The Lemongrass Beef was SO awesome. I’d never had it before and I loved it even more than the traditional Pork Banh Mi. I hope I can find this version of the sandwich in New York because I loved it! Don’t get me wrong, the pork was great too, but the beef! Wow the beef.

After “breakfast,” I was so sad to have to say good-bye to Diane, Todd and Sierra. They drove me to the airport and we hugged and said our good-byes. While I definitely was sad to leave, I was so happy to have formed this amazing friendship with these incredible people.

(Todd & Diane, Breakfast)

Diane and Todd, words can’t express how much our visit meant to me. You two hosted an event like I’ve never been to before. You are beautiful people, full of love and it’s clear how much you mean to the food blogging community. Thank you thank you thank you for welcoming me into your home, for the incredible cappuccinos Todd made me each morning, the amazing local food you shared and thank you mostly for the memories of this incredible trip.

(New friends)

Let's Eat!
-The Fabulous Foodie

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dim Sum at Jing Fong

As you’ll remember from my post last May, I never realized that a true “dim sum” meal was only served between the hours of 11am and 4pm on weekends. I literally thought it was a style of dining that could happen on any day at any hour, and Patrick and I learned the hard way that this wasn’t so. Over the long President’s Day Weekend two weeks ago, 7 friends, Patrick and I ventured down to China Town at an appropriate hour (1pm) to enjoy some Dim Sum at Jing Fong on an appropriate day (Sunday.) Boy were we in for an adventure.

Thanks to a good friend from home, I had been out until about 5am the night before this dim sum adventure, so needless to say, I was running a few minutes late for our 1pm meeting time. Since I have such punctual friends, some of them were right on time and were able to put our name in for a table. When Patrick and I rounded the corner onto Elizabeth Street, we saw a small mob assembled on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. I panicked for a moment because I was getting what my friends and I like to call “hangry,” a combination of hungry and angry, the later being mainly caused by the former. Once we met up with our friends, we were told the wait wouldn’t be too long, and it really wasn’t.
I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly large parties were being called into the restaurant, and then I became skeptical. I mean, how could they possibly seat THAT many people THAT quickly? I would soon learn the answer to my question. When our table was called, I did a little yelp of joy and followed my friends inside.

What I wasn’t expecting was a very long escalator that we had to ride underneath a beautiful crystal chandelier.

An escalator in a restaurant? Hm, okay. There’s a first time for everything.

Nothing could prepare me for the room we were about to walk into. The only thing that makes me happier than a real football field is a restaurant the size of a football field, which Jing Fong is. Hundreds of people sat in the room as tables of varying sizes pulling food off of carts as they rolled by How glorious this dim sum idea was! I couldn’t believe the eating adventure I was about to embark upon.

The 9 of us sat at our table and almost immediately, about 12 plates of food were placed in front of us. They just kept pulling dishes off the cart and we just kept shaking our heads yes. More food, please! I squealed with excitement, pulled apart my chopsticks, poured myself a huge glass of water and a cup of tea and off I went.

I can’t really explain in detail every single thing I ate, but there were shumai (my favorite), dumplings, spring rolls, vegetables, chicken feet (Patrick’s fave):

and lots of other things filled with various kinds of meat (shrimp, pork, chicken, beef).  I absolutely loved the shrimp shumai:

and the Taro Cake:

A Taro Cake is a slightly spongy dish that my friend Kat encouraged me to try. It was a flavor unlike anything I’d ever had before, earthy and full of flavor. I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself out for dim sum.

Every time a cart rolled by, we shook our heads yes for more plates to be placed on our table.

The more we ate, the more water we gulped to offset the intense amount of sodium we were consuming and I was sure this meal was going to cost me a pretty penny based solely on how much food we had. When we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, we requested our check and I prepared myself for what I was sure would be a lot of damage. Not so. It came out to exactly $15 per person INCLUDING tax and tip. In New York City? For that much food? Surely there must have been a mistake.

I left Jing Fong with both a tummy and a wallet that were full and happy. We climbed back onto the escalator to go back out into the street and even though I was the thirstiest I had ever been in my entire life, I considered our meal to be a great success.

Have you ever done a dim sum brunch? What are some of your favorite dishes you’ve had?

Let’s Eat!
-The Fabulous Foodie

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Best Sushi I've Ever Had... Ever.

Seeing as I eat sushi several times a week, it takes a lot for me to see that I just had the BEST sushi I've ever had, but I really did, and I don't see any sushi ever topping this.

One of my favorite things about my boyfriend (along with a lot of other amazing qualities) is that anytime I'm hungry, he's willing to go out and eat whatever I'm craving. Last week, I was craving sushi, and he mentioned that a co-worker had strongly recommended Sushi Yasuda on 43rd between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I did my research and found very good reviews for this restaurant, so I gave them a call and was excited that they had an open reservation for two that very evening at 7:30pm, so I took it.

Patrick and I met near my office after work and hopped on the subway up to Grand Central and we walked from there. We had a hard time finding the entrance at first, but once we did we ducked inside to find a brightly-lit restaurant with very little decoration besides the light wood wall panels and a row of chefs lining the sushi bar against the side wall. We were shown to our table and handed two menus to begin what would be an unforgettable meal.

The first thing that struck me about the menu was the sheer absence of anything fried or covered in sauce. The menu was broken out into all different types of fish and even had a Pre Fix option where, for $22.50, you could choose five pieces of sushi, two maki rolls and either a soup or a salad. I don't understand why more sushi restaurants don't do this and instead force you to order specific rolls that they have grouped together.

I ordered the Seaweed and the Pre Fixe sushi: Yellowtail (2 pieces), Tuna, Spanish Mackerel & Eel with a Yellowtail Roll and a Tuna Roll. Patrick also got the Pre Fixe sushi and we ordered a Toro Roll to share. The Seaweed Salad was unlike any other I'd had before. The plate that was placed in front of me had 5-6 different types of seaweed on it, not just the green stringy variety I was used to. The plants ranged in color from red to purple to green. The dressing was served on the side and I dunked the leaves into the tasty sauce one by one. If I had to choose, I’d say the green stringy seaweed is the one I prefer, but it was a great way for me to try something new and was the perfect way to whet my palette for the sushi.

The Seaweed Salad was followed by the perfect bowl of Miso Soup that was the most flavorful I've ever tasted. It’s hard for a restaurant to improve too much upon Miso Soup since it is so simple, but this soup was truly wonderful—rich and aromatic with deep, full flavor. Patrick and I both picked up our bowls to slurp the last bit so as not to waste a drop.

We awaited our fish eagerly and I was very excited when large round plates were placed in front of us.

The rolls were smaller than I was used to but the fish was vibrant and looked incredible. Upon the first bite of the sushi, I was truly blown away. Never had I tasted a fresher piece of fish. Patrick had a similar reaction to his first bite and noted that the fish was “melty.” He asked, “what’s a better word for melty?” When we heard the man at the table next to us call his sushi “buttery,” Patrick and I nodded our heads at each other. That was the perfect word, as the fish was so tender and the rice so creamy that it fell apart in my mouth in the most wonderful way possible.

The biggest problem I have with sushi is that I usually eat it far too quickly. I do try to eat it slowly, but all too often, it’s gone before I can say “omakase.” I wasn’t about to let that happen with this heavenly sushi, so I made a great effort to eat my meal slowly, savoring each bite. Each piece of fish I ate was better than the one before it, and I was in absolute awe of the food I was putting into my mouth. I understood why every table in the restaurant was full.

Once we had each finished our Pre Fixe sushi, we moved on to the Toro Roll that we were sharing. I had been meaning to try Toro for a long time, but the letters “MP” next to it on most menus usually steers me towards the Maguro or Hamachi instead. Since we were in an obviously special sushi restaurant, we decided to spend the extra money to try the roll, and it was completely worth it.

Toro is Fatty Tuna and when you eat it, it actually melts away in your mouth. It was a very unique experience and although I felt the Toro was missing the substantial texture of the sushi fish I’m used to, I evaluated it without comparisons and decided that I absolutely loved it.

When we were done, I decided I wanted one more roll, and Patrick encouraged me to order another so I got an additional Yellowtail Scallion Roll. It was the perfect way to end a perfect sushi meal, and I was fully satisfied by the time we finished the roll.

An important thing to note is that when I get to a restaurant and water is delivered to the table, it’s my true preference that I’m given a large water glass. I drink a LOT of water with my meals so rather than risk an empty water glass, I’d rather a larger glass. I was slightly disappointed to see a tiny water glass in front of me when I sat down, but I do have to say, my glass did not have a chance to sit empty for even one second. My glass was refilled about 25 times, which seems both inefficient and impressive to me at the same time. I do think the restaurant would be better off providing larger glasses to minimize their own work, but I can’t complain about it since I was never without water.

If you love sushi and find yourself in Midtown East, I insist that you pay Sushi Yasuda a visit. Call ahead for reservations, order a ton of sushi, sit back and enjoy the best sushi New York City has to offer.

Let’s Eat!
-The Fabulous Foodie